Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Long Live the Fairytale - Lucy Coats


I have lately been engaged in a debate about Professor Richard Dawkins’ stated intent to research the ‘insidious’ and ‘pernicious’ effects of fairytales on young minds, and it set me thinking about imagination and its rôle in our lives. Why are many of those who blog here—and thousands of others—writers of fiction? Why do we find it a necessary compulsion to ‘make things up’ instead of sticking to facts with a proven scientific and evidential basis, as the Professor, I think, would prefer us to do?

I, personally, do not think that science and imagination have to be antithetical to one another. Surely the great scientists and inventors—the ones who put forward new and, to their peers, simply absurd theories were and are men and women with an immense capacity to dream the unthinkable? To predicate the laws of gravity from a falling apple took, in my opinion, a tremendous leap of the imagination from Isaac Newton.

But writers of fiction use their imaginations in a different way to scientists. We are inventors too—but some of us are inventors of new imaginary worlds, where the laws of science may be circumvented, ignored, or turned on their heads. In our heads, anything is possible—magic of many kinds, machines which defy earthly edicts as to how they should behave, talking animals, enchanted beings—the list is as endless as the words in a thousand Thesauri. Professor Dawkins wonders whether the fact that so many of the stories about frogs turning into princes, which he read as a child, allowed the possiblity of a sort of insidious effect on rationality. Perhaps—though not, I feel, in his case! But the million dollar question is: would it have been a bad thing? I don’t think so.

We, if we are to grow up to be truly balanced human beings, need the world of the imagination which writers and storytellers have been providing since man first acknowledged ‘wizardry’ in those long ago cave paintings which show a stag-headed shaman. Stories about magic, fairies and otherworlds can hugely enrich the inner lives of child readers and listeners alike—can transport their minds to places they never even dreamed about. They can teach important lessons as well. As G.K. Chesterton said, ‘Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.’ Myths, too, are not ‘true’ in a quantifiable sense, but they also teach children about many of the great lessons in life, about taboos, about courage, cowardice, love, hubris, the danger of strangers, not judging by appearances and so on.

Our intellectual world, whether Professor Dawkins accepts it or not, is filled with the non-scientific and non-rational. Our individual and collective imaginations cannot be pinned down, quantified, examined under a microscope. Our imaginations are what makes each of us unique, and so we should carry on reading fairytales to our children regardless of any deleterious effects. As Philip Pullman so rightly says: ‘It takes “Once upon a time” to reach the heart.’ What the Professor must realise is this: a child’s mind is absolutely capable of containing many ‘once upon a times’ and evidential scientific formulae all at the same time—and what’s more, distinguishing entirely successfully between the two without any harmful effects whatsoever. Vivat Fabula!

7 comments:

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Hello, Lucy! I'm coming here from the Kidlitosphere.

I love talking about fairy tales and debating their motifs. Your post here is thoughtful and knowledgable. Reading Dawkins' remarks about his beliefs about fairy tales' effects on young minds reveals at the onset that he's shooting from the hip and is pushing an agenda without having done the research or spent time really thinking about fairy tales (which I differentiate from fiction stories, as the former is heavily rooted in the oral tradition). I don't think Dawkins has done his homework. I can't take him seriously until he's read the works of Jack Zipes, Maria Tatar and other fairy tale scholars with a curious, open mind unfettered by a preset agenda.

Lucy Coats said...

Thank you for joining in, Alkelda (love the name), and welcome to our Scattered Author world. I hope you will come back often and read the varied and wonderful posts and associated comments that appear here every day. I too think Prof Dawkins is, perhaps, not quite as knowledgeable on this subject as he needs to be--nor does he have a totally 'unfettered mind'. He has definitely got to do more research, and I have already asked him to engage with the literary/children's community on this one. No response from him yet!

AnneR said...

Hear, hear. Well done, Lucy. It will be interesting to see if he *does* come back to you. I completely agree that great science also takes great imagination. It's so counterproductive to see them as polar opposites rather than part of a broad and continuous spectrum. Aristotle was perfectly happy dealing with both - where did it all go wrong?

Meg Harper said...

I'm with you, Lucy. Prof Dawkins tends to hide from what he doesn't want to see - he needs to think about what's going on when virtually every culture independently has its Cinderella myth. This isn't something we're imposing - these ideas are there in our group psyche.

Re fiction rather than fairy tale and myth, it's interesting to note that science fiction has an uncanny habit of turning into fact!

asakiyume said...

Dawkins is so unpleasant. Honestly, some people make a career out of it. Having an imagination doesn't make people less rational; it opens up possibilities--imagination is just as important in science as in literature. You have to be able to think beyond convention and known truths to come up with something new, with theories that work better. That takes imagination.

Jon M said...

So, he's writing a children's book eh? Hasn't he ever read Sophie's World? Extremists of any hue worry me.

Susan Stephenson said...

I believe all media has the potential of a "pernicious" or "insidious" effect on young minds. It's up to we caregivers to keep the channels of communication with children open. Reflection and discussion time after reading a picture book, or watching a movie is a great idea and enhances the experience.
Susan, the Book Chook